Ewen McKenzie will break a Super Rugby coaching record on Good Friday but he’s more intent on ticking the one box left unchecked in the Queensland Reds’ history.
In 18 seasons of Super Rugby, the Reds have never prevailed against the Highlanders in the deep south of New Zealand.
Dunedin’s Carisbrook and icy weather-blown Invercargill have been traditional graveyards for Queensland sides but McKenzie expects his team to rise to the challenge and end the hoodoo in the Highlanders’ new, roofed Forsyth Barr Stadium.
“We like little bits of history so we’ll look forward to that,” said the Reds’ director of coaching.
“We haven’t won before at Carisbrook but we’re not playing at Carisbrook.
“Weather’s always a challenge down there but we’ve got a level-playing field – which sounds a bit corny – but it suits them too.”
Although the Highlanders remain the only winless team in the competition, they possess game-breakers like Aaron Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear and Ben Smith, as well as grizzled All Blacks Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore.
They also play an expansive and exciting brand of running rugby that suits a dry track.
“It hasn’t paid off for them so far but their intentions are to play rugby so it makes for a big challenge,” McKenzie said.
“They’ve got some striker power – their back three are scoring all their points so they’re potent and they like to get the ball wide.
“They haven’t been far away so they’ll be frustrated with their circumstance and they’ll be in front of their home crowd so everything will be thrown at us in this game.”
Queensland also have doubts over Wallabies three-quarters Digby Ioane (knee) and Ben Tapuai (hand) who have undergone scans, as well as utility back Mike Harris (hand), following knocks in the 23-18 win over the Bulls.
Dom Shipperley looms as the most likely starting replacement if either are ruled out while flanker Liam Gill is fit to return from his knee injury.
If Ioane and Tapuai are cleared, the Reds will field their strongest team of the season following the successful returns of leaders James Horwill (hamstring) and Will Genia (knee).
Former NSW mentor McKenzie breaks Robbie Deans’ record as the most-capped Super Rugby coach when he guides a side for the 121st match, which comes with a 63 per cent success rate.
“It’s an interesting statistic but it’s more a testament to survival than anything,” he said.
“I won’t be giving a second thought.”